By Ayman al-Warfali
SIRTE, Libya – The green bus rumbling from Benghazi to Tripoli this week was the first to traverse the main highway between Libya’s two biggest cities in years – the delayed result of a peace push that is running into trouble.
The coastal highway was reopened last week after months of negotiation as part of a ceasefire agreed in October, allowing traffic to cross the static frontline and avoid a long, perilous detour through the desert.
Atteya Badi, a passenger who alighted at the western city of Misrata, said he had not been able to see his family there for five years. “May God bring all loved ones together,” he said.
However, though the bearded driver Abdelhamid al-Hamali and his 35 passengers said the road’s opening gave them hope, Libya’s political process has stalled and powerful figures are trying to take advantage.
“Hopefully fighting doesn’t return and the road will stay open,” said Badi after the 500-mile (800 km) journey across a parched landscape of desert and brush past towns that bear the scars of fighting.
At stake is the best chance for peace in years after a decade of chaos and violence following the NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi that ultimately led Libya to split between eastern and western armed factions.
If it fails, Libya could swiftly divide again between warring governments in east and west backed by foreign powers.
The U.N.-aided peace programme accelerated last year after the collapse of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s 14-month assault on Tripoli and the retreat of his Libyan National Army (LNA).
While the ceasefire has held, some of its core terms including the withdrawal of foreign fighters have been sidelined. The coast road was meant to be reopened last year.
Set back behind the road, unseen by the drivers and passengers, heavily armed foreign mercenaries remain in place and there is no sign of agreement on their withdrawal.
Libya’s political process was focused around the creation of a new Government of National Unity (GNU) based in Tripoli and national presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in December.
The divided eastern-based parliament approved the GNU, leading the two rival administrations it replaced to peacefully hand over power. But the parliament, elected in 2014 and headed by an ally of Haftar, has not approved its budget or agreed a constitutional basis for the election.
Critics of Haftar and the parliament speaker, Aguilah Saleh, believe they are obstructing the process to ensure their own continued domination in eastern areas and undermine the GNU – charges they reject.
Haftar’s supporters have started mobilising support for him to run as president in the December elections. His LNA wields close control over eastern Libya and his opponents believe an election there could not be fair.
From Tripoli, the GNU is using oil revenue to buy support, analysts say. Its latest budget proposal has included funds for the armed groups that have emerged since 2011 and now control key state institutions, Amnesty International said last week.
Meanwhile the son of former ruler Gaddafi last month appeared in public after a decade in hiding to tell the New York Times he would also run for president. It prompted the Tripoli-based authorities to renew an old warrant against him on war crimes charges from the 2011 fighting.
As Hamali’s bus pulled out of Sirte, the last stop before crossing the newly reopened section of highway this week, it passed a road sign to Tripoli riddled with bullets – a warning to Libyans that their ceasefire is still fragile.